For the first time in over 50 years, Virginia Tech has made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
The Hokies had their way with their opponents in the first two rounds, beating Saint Louis and Liberty by a combined margin of 23 points. The Hokies managed to seemingly breeze through these first two games because of their defensive execution against lesser offensive teams.
As we at TLP have detailed for much of the season, the Hokies play an aggressive style of defense. Their goal on every possession is to plug up holes through switching, forcing turnovers and long jump shots.
When this defense is working as it should, it leads to plays like this:
In both of these situations, the Hokies’ defense gets into a scenario where defensive pressure forces the offensive player into a bad decision. During the first play, Kerry Blackshear gets help from Nickeil Alexander-Walker to put pressure on the opposing shooter, forcing him into a contested fadeaway jumper. In the second play, Wabissa Bede uses the sideline to close the gap on the opposing guard and forces him to lose the ball.
Virginia Tech thrives off of forcing its opponents to make mistakes with the ball. Their upcoming opponent, the number one overall seed Duke Blue Devils, plays a style of play that involves a lot of cutting to the basket.
Duke phenom Zion Williamson is perhaps the most all-around athletic player to ever play in the NCAA, and he uses this to his advantage. Williamson not only has a 48-inch vertical, but he weighs 280 pounds, giving him a size advantage down low as well.
I would be a fool to even try and speculate on how the Hokies can stop him because they simply can not. The only player with similar athleticism to Williamson is Ahmed Hill, but Zion outweighs him by over 70 pounds.
Zion will get his points because he simply does what he wants with the ball down low:
But aside from Zion, most of Duke’s other contributions come on drives as well. RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones all thrive on getting to the basket in one-on-one matchups.
How can the Hokies stop the Blue Devils from scoring on them at will? It comes down to simply being where they need to be, and not allowing Duke to get favorable matchups.
Take this play from the ACC Semifinal between Duke and UNC for example:
Reddish attempts to drive on the UNC defender and create offense, but the UNC point guard comes at the perfect moment to set a trap and force a turnover. The Hokies, like the Tar Heels, are ranked in the top 20 of adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom so it is completely feasible for plays like this to happen on Friday night.
The risk that is most typically associated with Virginia Tech’s style of play defensively is that of open three-pointers. The Hokies are 84th nationally in three-point defense, which is a decent metric, but it is by far their weakest.
When a player leaves his man to guard another man, there is always the risk of a shooter being left open. Take this play for example:
Ty Outlaw leaves his man to try and plug up (granted, somewhat halfheartedly) the driving lane for the ballhandler. His man then drains the open three-pointer.
The Hokies will need more passionate effort from the defensive end all night in order to avoid giving up open looks.
Fortunately for VT, Duke is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation. They rank 330th nationally in three-point percentage. Alex O’Connell (the shooter from the previous clip) is the Blue Devils’ best regularly-contributing three-point shooter at 39 percent, but he has seen his playing time decrease during the NCAA Tournament due to his lack of size and his one-dimensional offense.
Reddish and Williamson are next on that list, both shooting 33 percent, which is worse than seven of the Hokies’ eight regular players.
However, there is always the possibility of a team getting hot. In their previous matchup against UCF, the Blue Devils shot 40 percent from behind the arc, 10 points better than their season average.
The Knights played a similar style of defense that the Hokies will look to play (minus the 7-foot-6 monster in the post for UCF). And they came inches away from pulling off the upset, losing by one point. Had Duke not shot above their average, they likely would have lost.
The Knights on this play use switching to close the lane for Reddish to drive, but the defender is an instant late closing out on Barrett. However, Barrett is only a 31 percent shooter, so it is statistically less likely for this shot to go in. Nonetheless, he drains it, causing the defenders to have to pay more attention to him on the outside.
To summarize, the Hokies best options defending the Blue Devils are to limit the contributions on the inside from Zion’s teammates. Williamson is going to score and score a lot in this game, but he can not do it alone. The Hokies will need to force Duke to rely on their outside game.
If you’re a Hokie fan, pray for the law of averages to kick in from behind the arc. If Duke is unable to make their three-point shots, and the Hokies make theirs, be ready for an upset to occur in our nation’s capital.
Photo Credit: Bobby Murray
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